What Is The Future of Work? The Fall of Humans in a World Without Jobs
“I predict the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.”
~ — Robert Metcalfe, 1995 (founder of Ethernet and 3Com)
Imagine… 20 years ago, experts debated whether the internet was just a fad. A novelty that would quickly die…
Today we’re debating the entire future of work.
How about this one?
“There’s no chance the iPhone is going to get any significant market share.”
That was Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft in April of 2007…
It seems obvious to us now… but in the era of flip-phones, people did not consider the iPhone a contender.
And it’s not just Steve Ballmer of Microsoft…
Blackberry, Motorolla and Nokia didn’t take the Apple threat serious either…
That’s a lot of high-ranking industry insiders who dropped the ball.
What about Blockbuster Video?
From television and telephones, to airplanes and personal computers… many people “in the know” have been dismissive towards new technology.
And it’s happening again…
As we stumble our way into an economy of artificial intelligence and advanced automation, you’ll hear the naysayers…
“it’s still decades away”, “the future of work won’t be the problem people think”
… and of course… “jobs may be lost, but they’ll be replaced by new and better jobs”.
To the experts who say jobs lost to A.I. and automation will be replaced with new and better jobs… I say bullshit!
Will there be new jobs we haven’t yet imagined?
But how do they define the word “replace”?
To think millions of unemployed people in one industry, can simply pack their bags, sell their homes and start fresh tomorrow morning in a new industry is absolutely ridiculous.
Their jobs aren’t being replaced. They’re being left to fend for themselves in the vague hope that the market will correct itself…
Experts can’t even predict what tomorrow’s jobs will be, so they sure as hell can’t claim that people’s jobs will be replaced.
How many unemployed factory workers in the 90’s were saved from the rise of Silicon Valley?
None… at least none of consequence.
California was ripe with new jobs in the tech industry during the late 90’s, but the broken and boarded up remains of a once thriving manufacturing industry still remain… 20 years later.
When you look at what really matters… people’s lives, the word “replaced” does not apply to the future of work.
A Job Created In One Industry, Does Not Replace a Job Lost In Another…
While listening to serious discussions about the future of work (like this one…)
… you will hear some so-called experts say things like, “It’s true… driverless vehicles will eliminate most truck and delivery drivers… but don’t worry, there’s a huge shortage of computer programmers.”
Here’s the problem. These are people who,
- Believe the invisible hand of the market fixes all, and…
- That economies matter more than individuals.
But that’s not how reality works.
Sure… a thousand jobs over here to “compensate” for a thousand jobs lost over there might keep “the economy” balanced… which is really all they care about…
But, what about individuals who become unemployed and lose their entire income? What about those who lose their homes, or cash in their children’s education fund just to survive?
Where is their balance?
So… in my opinion, a new job here does not replace a job lost there…
It’s Just Another False Alarm
To be clear, there are a lot of important people who are taking the future of work seriously.
The people who make decisions though… the ones who walk the halls of government, the economists who advise those in positions of power…
Those people have been taking a “wait and see” approach.
Here’s their logic…
It’s business as usual. Jobs have been lost before, and we survived just fine.
They say our fears are unfounded and that people have been sounding this false alarm for centuries. It’s not a big deal and will almost certainly work itself out.
Well… first, this time IS different… and second, it hasn’t always worked itself out.
This Time… It IS Different
In the past, technology and machines have replaced “jobs”… but not humans.
We’re fast approaching a tipping point though…
Until now, machines and algorithms lacked the complexity and dexterity of humans… as well as the ability to identify and process abstract information, such as images.
Machines lacked general logic, and the ability to reason…
These are all deficiencies that drew a line between “them” and “us”… and there was never a threat to our dominance in the workplace.
But that’s no longer true. The walls are closing in. Technology is advancing exponentially… but we humans are not.
For the first time in history, technology (AI) and machines (robots) are not only matching our abilities, but surpassing them.
From an economic point of view, machines and artificial intelligence will replace humans… not just jobs.
And that’s not good for a society that values it’s humans by their ability to produce and earn money.
Martin Ford, author of Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, in his Ted Talk (below) discusses a class of worker who at the beginning of the 20th century experienced what it was like to be replaced…
The steam engine, first built in 1698, replaced some jobs previously performed by horses…
…but the steam engine did not replace our equestrian friends entirely.
For another 200 years… they still had a job to do.
Then came the internal combustion engine, and the automobile… which was the tipping point for horses.
Some might argue horses no longer having to work is a good thing, but from a purely economic perspective, the “horseless carriage” replaced more than their job… it replaced them entirely.
In 1915 the horse population was 22 million. By 1960, there were only 3 million.
The horse was completely irrelevant to the economy… and in many ways… irrelevant to society.
What does that say about humans who become irrelevant to the economy?
Will they also become irrelevant to society?
One could argue they already are.
The way homeless people are treated… or the unjustified dismissal of people who don’t “produce” as lazy and useless…
These are not good indicators of a bright future in a world with too few jobs.
We’ve Been Through This Before and Everything Worked Out Fine
The second argument… that it’s always worked out fine before… is false.
One common example used to “prove” it’s just another false alarm, is the Industrial Revolution…
When steam power and self-propelled machinery arrived in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s, people believed these new technologies would replace workers.
That did not happen… it’s true. Workers were not replaced.
And, naysayers correctly point out that new jobs were created and the economy grew like never before. Employment, wealth and production rose to an all time high.
Nothing to worry about, right?
What “experts” ignore is that it took nearly 200 years before the world we know today emerged.
Talk about a long period of painful adjustment and unrest…
During the Industrial Revolution the world saw 2 major Communist revolutions, 2 World Wars and The Great Depression.
The death toll left behind by these major events is just shy of 100 million!
We didn’t just softly transition into modern times.
For thousands of years the world chugged along with relatively little change. A person alive 500 years ago would not be entirely uncomfortable living in the world 3000 years ago.
And then… in the blink of an eye during the Industrial Revolution, new global superpowers emerged and the Geo-political structure of the planet (again… which was relatively stable for thousands of years), was shaken unlike any other time in human history.
And, we’re not talking about ancient times here. There are people alive today who witnessed the tail end of that turmoil.
Just because we grew up in what is considered a stable time… does not mean we can take it for granted.
There is no guarantee they will continue from here on forward…
That also doesn’t mean we’re headed for a new age of darkness either… another World War, major Revolution, or a second Great Depression… but we’re also not immune to such events occuring.
Massive disruption has massive consequences…. and massive disruption is what’s coming over the next decade.
When discussing the challenge of today… it’s not as simple as saying new jobs will replace the ones that are lost.
This disruption is far more significant than that, and to dismiss the potential impact would be naïve.
The Future of Work Might Be No Work
The economic shift we’re heading for is often referred to as The Fourth Industrial Revolution, labeled by Professor Klaus Schwab in his book…“The Fourth Industrial Revolution”.
And, as Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, Professor Schwab knows a little about what we’re talking about.
He argues that the economic change we’re about to witness is unlike any other, and far more profound than those that came before.
And, it would be hard to disagree.
In the past we replaced animal and human labor with machines, and connected the world with electricity and telephone lines…
These were big changes which, in their own way, enabled tremendous violence, massive disruption, and political instability.
Today we’re witnessing a similar shock as physical, digital and biological technologies converge… reaching out into all economies, industries, governments and individuals… at the same time.
Whether we’re discussing drone technology, artificial intelligence, supercomputing, nanotechnology, 3D printing, DNA sequencing, autonomous vehicles, virtual reality… the scale and scope of our changing world is impossible to comprehend.
It’s overwhelming, which is why many are choosing to ignore it and hope it all works out for the best.
And, while this article talks about the economic disruption… the potential for military applications is absolutely terrifying.
The defense industry is one of the primary drivers of robotics and artificial intelligence. The advantages gained on the battlefield and in strategy rooms guarantees the relentless march forward to develop technologies that remove humans from the picture.
Here are just a few examples…
From manufacturing and fossil fuel extraction, to lending institutions and shipping companies… this inexpensive electric car completely rewrites the rules of entire industries… with global implications.
But, the impact of 3D printing is even far greater.
It will transform the entire construction industry, ushering in a new a era of plug and play buildings. From 3D printed homes and office buildings, to the circuitry and plumbing embedded in the walls… jobs in the construction industry are at risk.
Artificial intelligence is not only threatening jobs that were once considered untouchable, but it’s forcing us to ask what it means to be human.
Engineers are at risk, as are professionals in legal and medical.
In general, people form their identities around the work they do… and nowhere is this more prevalent than in higher-education professions.
When AI beat chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov, he wrote about it as if he was describing death. And that was in 1997.
More recently, Google’s Deepmind, Alphago defeated 17 time world Go champion Lee Sedol. With more positions than there are atoms in the Universe, the game Go is widely considered to be the most complex and difficult games to beat.
You can watch the movie on Netflix and clearly see the psychological devastation this defeat had… not only on champion Lee Sedol, but by fans of the game and others who were beaten by Alphago.
So, when it comes to AI and the future of work, there is more than jobs to consider.
The psychological impact of spending years in school, only to be replaced by artificial intelligence that’s faster, smarter and more accurate than you, it’s a problem.
While algorithms capable of interpreting data and images thousands of times faster than a human are currently being used to “assist” medical professionals (such as radiologists and pathologists)… it’s not hard to imagine that over the next few years these algorithms will easily replace their human counterparts.
It’s even being suggested that leaving medical diagnostics to a human could eventually become morally unacceptable.
And it makes sense. A radiologist who looks at 20–100 x-rays a day might be able to compete with an AI today… but in a relatively short time (5–10 years) that algorithm, which can process thousands of images daily (24/7), and amalgamate the data instantly with other AI’s around the world to create a central database from which to draw experience from… will far surpass human capability.
If you ask anyone what makes humans the superior species, the answer will include intelligence…
We don’t know how to live in a world where we are not the most intelligent species… and that shift is potentially greater than any change in human history thus far.
The same thing is happening with autonomous vehicles. Fully-autonomous vehicles, and semi-autonomous systems are currently collecting millions of miles worth of data which will be used to develop vehicle fleets that require no driver.
It’s not perfect, and recently one of Uber’s driverless cars was involved in a fatal collision with a pedestrian. But human drivers are not perfect either.
In fact, according to the World Health Organization… there are 1.2 million road accident related deaths with humans behind the wheel.
When comparing the number of incidences to number of miles driven… so far autonomous vehicles outperform us. And they will get better.
The number of jobs lost due to autonomous vehicles will be in the millions…
It’s not a matter of if, but when.
As far as jobs are concerned, virtual reality has flown under the radar.
But again, in a 5–10 year period, things are expected to change.
Take a University for example. The physical cost of a University is in the billions… from initial construction and renovations, to annual maintenance costs, parking facilities, road construction (for efficient access), and utilities such as water and sewage…
These are all costs paid for by tuition and taxes…
As virtual reality get’s closer to replicating the real world (and it’s impressive already), it’s expected we’ll see a rise in digital environments and buildings… such as Universities.
These will be digital buildings with all the detail of the real thing in which you can sit in class and talk with friends, hang out in study halls, endure long lectures and even ask your teacher questions…
And virtual reality goes so much further than what traditional schools are able to offer.
No longer are you confined to just a classroom. History class can take you back in time, geography right to the location. Virtual reality will transport you into the audience of historical speeches, deep into the oceans, and far into space.
Practical experience can be had where only theory was previously possible… and at a price that’s a fraction of today’s tuition costs.
When you count the cost savings of living at home, a digital education will be an attractive option for students.
Also, in an era when countries like the United States are talking about arming teachers with guns… many parents may prefer the safety of these digital schools.
And, when virtual reality is married with artificial intelligence… teaching jobs could be at risk.
Vivek Wadwa, Director of Research at The Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at the Pratt School of Engineering, and co-author of The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future, paints a compelling picture of what teaching may look like in the near future.
As he describes it, artificial intelligence with human-like qualities (in his example, an AI named Clifford) will spend years with our children, learning and understanding their strengths and weaknesses.
Clifford will teach them math, music, art and many other subjects in virtual environments that make learning feel as though they’re playing games and living through history.
This may occur as he suggests alongside human educators, but it’s not difficult to imagine Clifford replacing a significant percentage of teachers.
Working in a digital environment will also replace your office. Why pay for an expensive downtown lease and compete locally with other businesses for experienced and talented employees?
Companies can create their own virtual offices and hire qualified employees from anywhere in the world… often paying them local wages which can benefit both the employer and the employee.
Like sitting in a real office, virtual reality will transport you and your co-workers into a digital office that looks and feels very close to the real thing.
Better in fact…
Your office view might be glacier lakes and rocky mountains. Board meetings can be held on beaches, or in locations relevant to the products you sell…
Staff will be more than happy to avoid busy commutes, as well the expense of daily travel.
But here’s the thing…
In addition to the buildings themselves… think of the infrastructure and services we currently use during our daily commutes.
Production of the vehicles we travel in, the workers who fix and maintain them, the roads we drive on, the places we stop to eat along the way… They all represent a job at risk.
With fewer people commuting, the demand for fossil fuels will drop significantly. Great for the environment (essential perhaps)… but for those working in the oil industry (I was one of them)… it’ll be devastating.
We’re Just Getting Started…
All the technologies listed above already exist. They are NOT science fiction, nor are they concepts off in a distant future.
They are here now, and they are evolving quickly…
Their impact will not be immediate, but the change they thrust upon us will outpace our ability to adapt.
Also, with our current economic system it will be difficult (if not impossible) to stop them. Each one in there own way contributes to higher productivity and lower costs… and if one thing in business is guaranteed, it’s the march towards higher productivity and lower costs.
But it’s not without a price.
As mentioned above… a trucker who loses his or her job to a driverless truck won’t just slide into a computer programming job.
These are real people who will struggle to put food on their table. It’ll induce anger and frustration and in some cases lead to serious societal issues such as alcoholism and violent crime.
Things may work themselves out in the end… but there will be a long period of adjustment.
And yet… this is just the tip of the iceberg, because we’re also moving into the realm of what was once considered science fiction…
For example, nanotechnology is bringing us materials such as graphene which is 200 times stronger than steel, harder than diamond, and extremely flexible.
Here we are again with another technology that could completely transform our current methods of material production.
Another example is DNA sequencing. In the 90’s some “experts” were saying it would take hundreds of years to sequence the human genome… but it didn’t take hundreds of years. It didn’t even take a decade.
The human genome was sequenced in 2003.
In the mid-2000’s it would cost you $20 million or more to sequence your personal DNA… but by 2016, only 10 years later, you could have it done for under $1000.
Over the next decade you can expect DNA sequencing to tell us things about ourselves that were once impossible to know… and in the process completely alter areas of medicine and nutrition.
These changes don’t necessarily indicate jobs lost… but they will lead to a period of uncertainty as no one will be trained for the new jobs… whatever they turn out to be.
And here’s a big problem.. with everything else being taken over by AI and automation… with change happening at such a rapid pace, people will become reluctant to commit years of their lives becoming educated for a profession that might not even exist by the time they learn it.
Doing More With Less
It’s not just automation and 3D printing that will disrupt the manufacturing, packaging and shipping industries.
We can expect an overall reduction in manufacturing altogether, as we digitize our products. TV’s, handheld devices, and computers will eventually become holograms.
Imagine a single pair of glasses that replace several devices?
Not only are they aiming to replace your phone, TV, computer, watch, and even trinkets around your house… they also plan to transport your friends and family directly into your home (as life-like holograms).
AR is already replacing clunky clay models and prototypes with digital ones, changing how engineers and designers work.
It will also revolutionize online shopping, overlaying products in your home like furniture and kitchen cabinets so you can see how they look before you buy.
If you’re thinking you’d never get rid of a “physical” product for a digital one… people were saying the same things about CD’s, DVD’s, computer storage, books, photographs… and even landline phones.
Holographic AR is amazing, with the added benefit of helping the environment…
One product that can replace several will cut back on demand for raw materials, the number of components needed to be manufactured (less energy, pollution and toxic byproducts), as well as fewer shipping containers floating around the world…
It’s also a huge cost benefit to consumers.
Technology has boiled what was once a million dollars worth of products (just 20 years ago), into an cheap smartphone today.
Holographic technology (as well as virtual reality) will take this a step further.
But as great as this is, people will still struggle because fewer products produced means fewer jobs, and more economic instability.
Without question, we can look forward to entirely new fields of employment not yet conceived, but those jobs (whatever they turn out to be) will provide little comfort to those who lose their jobs in the production and distribution of the products people no longer need.
We could go on, from drone technology and warehouse robots, to self-serve checkouts and online shopping.
Whether you believe we’ll have enough jobs to replace the old ones or not, we as a civilization are facing change unlike anything before.
And we’re NOT prepared for it…
Social Unrest and Inequality
As we talked about earlier, it took 200 years from the beginning of the industrial revolution to the time society and daily life settled into the world we know today.
The problems were facing now are similar, but in many ways far more profound.
As discussed above, technology is not only a threat to our jobs, but it’ll force us to re-evaluate what it means to be human.
If you’re simply thinking of new gadgets, it’s not too hard to imagine a world with these technologies…
But at deeper level, the implications point to a difficult transition.
One of our problems with new technology is that it’s expensive.
Since we’re talking about things that will bring giant leaps in productivity, and significant economic advantage in some way… those who can afford these technologies with set themselves further apart from those who can’t… leading to even greater inequality.
With inequality comes social unrest.
Take for example, biomedical enhancements. Medical science in the near future will enable those who can afford it to be “better than normal”.
Better than normal might mean higher intelligence, stronger resistance to illness and disease, and even the ability to live indefinitely.
All of these “enhancements” provide advantages to wealthy individuals and countries that in effect, lead to more wealth… while the rest of humanity is left behind.
The same is true for automation. While business owners use robots to increase their wealth through better productivity and reduced costs… the employees of those businesses will lose their jobs and fall further into financial hardship.
Over time costs will come down, and technology often levels the playing field… (like Napster did to the music industry, or YouTube to video production and distribution companies).
But…in the meantime, the damage is done.
With economic turmoil and a widening gap between rich and poor, the potential for anger and violence is real… which would force governments to act aggressively towards their own people.
How this plays out is well beyond the scope of this article, but it’s necessary to point out that technological unemployment poses a serious risk to life as we know it… and the stability we’ve enjoyed for the last few generations is not guaranteed.
Universal Basic Income
Technological unemployment is such a concern that governments, as well as billionaires such as Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Mark Zuckerberg are speaking out in favor of a Universal Basic Income (UBI)…
The quick explanation of UBI is simply paying people to live.
While UBI is a hot button topic that elicits strong fears amongst some with visions of socialism, and lazy drug users sitting around playing video games all day, the reality is quite different.
Often viewed as a handout, proponents of Universal Basic Income point out that our societies have been build by those who came before us.
Put simply, none of us get rich in a vacuum… we are all standing on the shoulders of giants and whether you are rich or poor, you belong to a society built by our ancestors and are therefore entitled to a portion of it.
Also… as one of societies “producers”, your wealth was paid for by “consumers”.
So… just because you built a business and worked hard does not mean you achieved everything on your own. Your products were shipped on roads paid for by public funds. Your customers have money to spend because their income (from employment) was made possible by public education, and so on…
And, the things we typically attribute financial success to, like hard work and intelligence… are terrible indicators of a person’s monetary status.
We like to think the universe is fair… but the truth is, there are plenty of lazy people who are wealthy… and many who live in poverty who work extremely hard.
The idea that hard work leads to wealth is bullshit!
And there are many “jobs” (like stay-at-home Mom or Dad) that society has deemed unworthy of pay… but they are important jobs nonetheless.
A Universal Basic Income is simply a fair distribution of the commons, and recognizes that everyone contributes in their own way. It provides equal opportunity… not equal result.
Advantages to Universal Basic include (among others),
- Better working conditions
- Reduced inequality (and the social problems that come with inequality)
- More balanced distribution of jobs
- Less crime
- Stronger democracy…
Having said that, UBI presents some challenges as well.
One of the questions that comes up is whether people will just become lazy and sit around smoking dope all day.
While research does not support this assumption, one area of concern is for teenagers attending school.
In general, studies show that UBI can lead to more meaningful work.
For example… without the burden of constantly chasing your next meal, people are far more likely to train for, and seek out work in areas that interest them; they’d take advantage of the time opportunity.
They may choose work that’s not only meaningful to them, but to society as well. It’s a lot easier to help others when your own needs are met.
This would also lead to a more entrepreneurial mindset, making UBI a strong case FOR capitalism, not against it.
However, this poses a problem for teenagers who are typically uncertain what they want to do with their lives, and are more interested in having fun…
What incentive do they have to learn and get good grades knowing their basic income will be provided when they graduate?
It’s been suggested that the amount of Basic Income is higher for those who do well in school… but then it’s no longer “Universal”.
It becomes a Conditional Basic Income, which takes away one of the advantages that UBI provides… which is the elimination of administrative costs for complex benefit programs.
Another issue with Universal Basic Income is that globally, it’s not really Universal. The same argument that we are all beneficiaries of the society we live in applies to everyone.
Our economic world is no longer defined by borders.
So, UBI is great if you live in a country that provides it… but what if your country doesn’t? The impact of technological unemployment still applies to you, no matter where you live on this planet.
There are the obvious right-left political issues to deal with (which will disappear as people on both sides become irrelevant to the economy). And then there are the industry titans and elites who’ll fight with their last breath to hang onto the status quo.
While the sentiment of UBI is great, putting into practice presents real challenges.
In addition to those listed above, another significant problem is determining how much?
And, how do you prevent landlords from raising rents to take it all… creating more inequality between home owners and renters?
It opens up an entirely new dialogue of rules and regulations…
Whether UBI is a viable answer to the future of work remains to be seen, but at least the conversation about how we should tackle the next decade has begun.
For thousands of years, very little had changed from generation to generation…
What your parents taught you (and what their parents taught them) applied directly to the world you lived in.
In the 20th century this was no longer true. The world you grew up in was in many ways dramatically different than the one your parents grew up in.
Today change is marked by decades… or even less. We don’t even know what the jobs of tomorrow will be, or if there will be enough to go around.
How do we prepare our children?
How do we prepare ourselves?
This is a serious issue, one of (if not the) most important of our lifetime.
While I think all ideas and suggestions to approach this challenge on a global scale are welcome, we need to first figure out how we can best deal with the future of work as individuals.
In my opinion, we need a new way of thinking.
It’s often said that the commodity of the future is information. For companies like Facebook and Google that might be true… but for individuals, I think it will be the ability to ask better questions. To solve problems.
Not math problems or puzzles… but situational problems. The ability to spot trends, ask what those trends mean, process the bigger picture, and act accordingly.
It’ll be the mindset of an entrepreneur, or freelancer… rather than the employee, doing mindless tasks and depending on regular paychecks.
More and more we’ll find it more difficult to lean on traditional institutions to earn a living. The world of tomorrow will not guarantee enough jobs to satisfy those who are willing to look for them.
And we certainly count on our elected representatives to tackle the problem.
We’ll be constantly adapting to something new, something unexpected.
If you have a particular skill or hobby… playing guitar for example… try finding ways to leverage it.
And preparing for a world where jobs are scarce isn’t all about making money… depending on your values, it might simply mean learning to live with less.
Jobs will disappear… maybe not tomorrow or the day after, but eventually technology will render us irrelevant to the economy… and all that will be left will be our quest for purpose.